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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane man who stole $15 of food, punched security guard has 5-year robbery sentence affirmed

The Temple of Justice, on the Washington Capitol Campus, is the home of the state Supreme Court.  (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

A unanimous Washington Supreme Court on Thursday affirmed a five-year prison sentence for a Spokane man who stole $15 worth of food from a Spokane grocery store, then repeatedly punched a security guard who confronted him in the parking lot.

In its 9-0 opinion, the court ruled that the state’s robbery law was written in a way that included 35-year-old Lance Thomason’s behavior on Sept. 5, 2018, when a security officer stopped him at the door of the North Foothills Yoke’s Fresh Market with the food stuffed into his pants. But a concurrence from the court’s chief justice said the law, and its resulting 63-month sentence, “speak to deep problems with our sentencing systems.”

The Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office initially sought a first-degree robbery charge against Thomason. According to court records, Thomason entered the store around 4:30 p.m. and grabbed $14.98 worth of hamburger, hot dogs and cheese, then walked out the front door without paying.

A security officer stopped Thomason in the parking lot, where the two struggled. Thomason was accused of throwing four to five punches in the incident, several of which struck the officer on the left side of his face. Thomason then fled to his nearby home.

The court record indicates a warrant for Thomason’s arrest was not issued until January 2019, following a similar incident at the Yoke’s supermarket. In that incident, Thomason tried to steal a box of donuts. He punched a different security officer in the eye and kicked a third officer in the stomach before he was arrested.

Thomason was first brought to trial on the September 2018 incident, where a jury convicted him of second-degree robbery. The charge had been downgraded by the prosecutor’s office before trial. To be guilty of that charge, a defendant must have taken something through “the use or threatened use of immediate force, violence, or fear of injury” and “the degree of force is immaterial.”

Spokane County Superior Court Judge Michael Price said prior to handing down the 63-month sentence, which was at the low end of a guideline range established by law, that it appeared as “a glorified shoplifting charge” and said that “I don’t have much discretion here.” Thomason seized on that statement in appealing the case to the Court of Appeals and later the Supreme Court, arguing that the relatively low value of the food and “minor force” should allow the judge to enter a lower sentence.

Prosecutors, meanwhile, pointed out that Thomason had been convicted of eight felonies, including an armed robbery when he was 17 and pointed a gun at a woman in the Logan Neighborhood, demanding cash, DVDs and some speakers. He was eventually sentenced to 12 years in prison on that charge. Prosecutors also disputed that the force was “minor.”

“There were injuries, albeit minor, and there was sufficient evidence, sufficient probable cause, to bring a first-degree robbery charge against Mr. Thomason,” said Alexis Lundgren, a Spokane County deputy prosecutor, in oral argument before the state Supreme Court in January.

The court sided with prosecutors, finding that Thomason had not raised any issues to the judge that would justify a lesser criminal sentence. But Chief Justice Steven Gonzalez, writing a concurrence, said he was concerned about the court’s interpretation of the law continuing to cause disproportionate sentences for people of color and impoverished defendants, particularly the law that established standard sentencing guidelines in the courts.

“While, perhaps, (that law) constrains some judicial discrimination and favoritism at sentencing, it does so at the cost of making it impossible for judges to avoid imposing a sentence driven by the injustices embedded in the criminal justice system, no matter how obvious those injustices might be,” Gonzalez wrote.

It is that argument that caught the eye of Camerina Zorrozua, a local defense attorney and co-founder of the Way to Justice, a nonprofit firm representing criminal defendants and pushing for court reforms. Zorrozua penned a brief with the Washington American Civil Liberties Union arguing to overturn Thomason’s sentence.

“The Thomason case is just one more example of how we are misusing criminal safety dollars to address problems that are arising out of poverty,” Zorrozua said, referencing both the city of Spokane’s sit-and-lie ordinance as well as the state’s drug possession law, since overturned, that criminalized possession even if the person didn’t know they had the drugs.

Two days after he was found guilty on the second-degree robbery charge, Thomason pleaded guilty to criminal mischief in the January 2019 incident at the Yoke’s. He received a 352-day sentence with credit for time served up until that point.

Thomason is listed in custody of the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, where he is serving his sentence for the robbery.